By Terry Battisti
Special to BassFan
Springtime meets every angler with grandiose thoughts of catching their personal best. Warming weather and longer daylight hours increases the water temperature, which, in turn, makes the fish begin their yearly pilgrimage to the shallows in order to reproduce. It’s the time of year when big egg-laden females are most vulnerable.
What sounds like easy pickings, though, a lot of the time turns into frustrating days on the water. A cold front can move in and drop the surface temperature by five or 10 degrees overnight, followed by a few days of bright skies and even colder temperatures. These spring weather situations can drive even the best anglers nuts as the fish move up and seemingly, within hours, move back out.
In this, the first installment of Tour Tips, we discuss how to find and track fish in the spring with Bassmaster Elite Series rookie Josh Bertrand. The Arizona residen has made a living at fishing for the past 6 years as a guide on the Salt River chain. He was also the 2012 Bassmaster Central Opens Angler of the Year. His experience guiding and fishing all over the U.S. has taught him how to quickly find fish in all seasons, including the fickle spring months.
Here’s what he had to say.
Do Your Homework
Success on the water is generally measured by how much homework you do and figuring out a body of water in the spring is no exception. This is why Bertrand uses all forms of technology to familiarize himself with new waters well before he ever makes that first cast.
“I start out by ordering topographical maps of the lake or river I’m going to fish,” he said. “It’s important this time of year to find spawning creeks – creeks that have enough shallow water – and the topographical maps allow you to look at the lay of the lake well before you get there.
“The other technology I use to familiarize myself with a new body of water is Google Earth. It’s one thing to look at a topographical map and see what the contours are like, but actually seeing what the ground above water offers is also important. An area may look great on a topo map, but it might not have a bottom that’s conducive to spawning. Aerial photography gives you a good idea whether the ground in certain areas is mud, rock or sand, the latter two being best for spawning.
“Where I grew up in the West, a lot of lakes don’t have the traditional spawning creeks that anglers in the South are used to,” he continued. “In the South, the lakes are generally large impoundments with a lot of creeks coming off the main river channel. You want to look for areas in these creeks where depth breaks lead to large, shallow flats. Also, the northern side of the creeks are the best due to the fact that they get more sunlight than the southern sides.
“Another thing about fishing the South is there are some lakes that don’t have any hard bottom at all. In cases like this, you look for anything that can provide a hard surface for the fish to spawn – things like stump fields, cement boat dock anchors, tire reefs and even boat lower units. You’d be surprised where I’ve seen fish set up to spawn.
“In the West, though, where we have a lot of deep-water lakes, most of the time you’re looking for areas off the main lake that have a good depth break leading to secondary points. From there you look for coves that have a hard bottom. The water may still be deep compared to the South, but a bass only needs a few feet of water to spawn and they can do that on a rock located on a steep shoreline.
“All of these types of areas, no matter where you live in the nation, can be found using maps and aerial photography way before you head out. In fact, by using these technologies you can develop a game plan or even a milk run on a lake you’ve never been to.”
“I always start on the outside of a spawning creek and work my way back into the creek,” Bertrand said. “I use fast-moving reaction baits such as a jerkbait, crankbait or lipless crank. They allow me to move fast, get an idea of what the terrain looks and feels like and also what type of cover or structure the fish are holding on. The first couple fish are critical in determining where they are and by using a reaction bait, you can put the odds in your favor by covering a lot of water fast.
“These baits can cover from 1 or 2 feet down to 15 feet or more,” he said. “In a dirty-water lake the fish tend to be shallower than in a clear-water lake and this group of lures will allow you to work all those depths effectively and efficiently.
“Pay attention to the type of cover or structure you get bit on. Are the fish holding on breaks that go from 5 to 10 feet of water? Are they on the top of points? Are they on transitions from a softer bottom to gravel? Each one of these are keys to figuring out where the majority of the fish are. Once you determine what type of cover and structure the fish are holding on, you can go back with a slower moving bait like a Senko or jig and pick the area apart.
“The jerkbait has to be the No. 1 lure for searching in clear water. But as you get farther back into the creek, where there’s usually more wood, it’s hard to beat a square-bill. Fish every inch of the cove.”
What Stage are the Fish In?
“Spring may be one season to us, but to the fish, it’s split into three distinct times,” Bertrand said. “Depending on the lake and weather, you can have all three sub-seasons of spring happening at once and it’s your job to figure out what the majority of the fish are doing.
“Once the water gets to the mid-50s, the fish start moving to their pre-spawn transition areas either at the mouths of the creeks or just inside them. When the surface temps hit that magical 60-degree mark, they start to move deeper into the creeks and move up shallower. The water temperature plays a critical role in where exactly you’re going to find them.
“One thing about the spring is the weather can really mess with the fish and their movement,” he said. “One day they can be ready to move to the shoreline in droves, the next day they could be pushed back because of bad weather or lowering water. Pay attention to what the weather has been doing and what it’s going to do. Most of the time the fish won’t move too far from where they were – normally moving back to the area they just left.
“Another thing to consider is that both pre- and post-spawn fish use the same migration routes and holding areas,” he added. “(Rick) Clunn said it best at Falcon recently: ‘If you’re catching fish that are fat and clean, they’re moving in to spawn and away from you. If you’re catching fish that are skinny and worn, they’re post-spawn and are moving toward you.’ You can tell a lot by just looking at the fish you catch.”
Bertrand' s experience with springtime fish paid off for him at the recent Elite Series event at Falcon.
“I’d only been to Falcon once before and knew relatively little about the lake going in to the event,” he said. “I’d always heard that on that lake you needed to fish deep structure in order to win, so that’s what I concentrated on looking for when I went on my scouting trip and also the first 2 days of official practice.
“All I was catching off the deeper structure was 2-pounders. I knew that wouldn’t make a difference, so I went to the dam and was fishing a long point that went from 12 to 20 feet of water. There was all sorts of foundations and other structure and I caught another 2-pound fish from the deeper water. At that point I cast up onto the point with a Carolina rig and caught an 8-pounder. The next cast I caught a 5. All it took was for me to turn around and cast into the shallower water and I found the right fish.”
Bertrand milked that spot and others for his first Top-12 finish in Elite competition.
Bertrand also looks for fish guarding fry as he runs a creek. “I rely heavily on my polarized sunglasses and look for fry and fry-guarders. I’ll make a mental note of where they are and then come back and fish them with a Senko.
“Swimbaits are also a good way to pull fish out from cover or structure. A lot of the time the fish won’t eat the bait, but they’ll follow it, exposing where they are. A bait I like for this is a Pro Swimbaits 7-inch Pro Wake.”
He also uses his electronics to determine where hard bottoms are.
“On your electronics, you’ll notice that when you are over a hard bottom, the actual bottom line will be very sharp and the gray below it will get thicker. The softer the bottom, the thicker the bottom line gets and the narrower the gray area becomes.”
(If you're in the Phoenix area and are interested in a guided trip on any of Arizona’s lakes, such as the Salt River Chain, Roosevelt or Pleasant, contact Bertrand through his website at www.thearizonafishingguides.com or call (480) 772-8460.)